A Biblical Response To The Abused Wife

By: Renee M. Malina

Published: Phoenix Seminary, T 506, Contemporary Moral Issues, Spring 2010


Intimate partner violence is prevalent throughout the world.  When wives are abused, they are faced with the decision whether to remain in their marriages, possibly at the risk of their lives or harm to their children.  This decision is particularly difficult when they believe that they might be disobeying God by ending the marriage.  God’s covenantal design for marriage is broken by abuse, and Scripture does not mandate that an abused wife must remain married to an abuser; therefore, the body of Christ is called to model God’s compassion toward abused women through effective strategies designed to meet the needs of women who are trying to escape abusive relationships.  God designed marriage to be a covenantal relationship through which spouses could experience companionship, physical relationship, respect, love, and caring.  On the contrary, abuse and neglect are condemned by Scripture and can break the marriage covenant.  When this happens, divorce is permitted due to the hard-heartedness of the abuser and as a legal protection for the abused.  Nevertheless, in the face of abuse, divorce is a complex decision that requires physical, spiritual, and emotional support.  This provides an opportunity for the body of Christ to execute effective church discipline, educate clergy and congregations about abuse, accept ministries of reconciliation and advocacy, provide safety for abused women and their children, and offer Christian counseling that reflects a biblical view of abuse within marriage.

Keywords:   abuse, covenant, divorce, intimate partner violence, marriage, neglect, violence

 A Biblical Response to the Abused Wife

The pounding of Sarah’s heart echoed the pounding of her drunken husband’s footsteps climbing the stairs to their small apartment.  With nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape, it would only be a matter of moments before her battered body would once again fall prey to his abuse.  On the other side of town in a more affluent neighborhood, Mary appeared impervious to the harsh realities of Sarah’s world.  Yet, surrounded by all the luxuries that her wealthy husband could buy, Mary’s heart beat loudly as her enraged husband beat her to a near lifeless pulp.  This fictional account of two abused wives calls attention to the very real epidemic of abuse.  The U.S. Department of Justice (2000) reported that “intimate partner violence is pervasive in U.S. society” (p. 5).  Approximately 25% of women surveyed were physically assaulted and/or raped by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.  In a 10‑country study of domestic violence against women, the World Health Organization (2009) found that 15% to 71% of women disclosed sexual or physical violence by a partner or husband.  These statistics underscore the prevalence of intimate partner abuse, which counselors will likely encounter in their practices.  It is imperative for Christian counselors to have a biblical answer for abused wives who feel caught in the dilemma of how to obey God and yet preserve their very lives.  God’s covenantal design for marriage is broken by abuse, and Scripture does not mandate that an abused wife must remain married to an abuser; therefore, the body of Christ is called to model God’s compassion toward abused women through effective strategies designed to meet the needs of women who are trying to escape abusive relationships.

God established the permanence of the marriage relationship when He declared, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, New American Standard Bible).  The Hebrew word azav, translated as leave, is often translated as forsake (Fruchtenbaum, 2009, p. 88).  Although azav frequently characterized Israel’s rejection of covenantal relationship with God, it was used positively in Genesis 2:24, with the man rejecting parental emotional ties in order to seek emotional fulfillment with his wife.  The Hebrew worddabaq, translated as cleave, literally means “to stick like glue” (Fruchtenbaum, 2009, p. 88).  In Deuteronomy, this word often signified maintaining a covenant.  The Hebrew phrase basar echad, translated as one flesh, connotes a compound unity, with the man and woman becoming one.  Genesis 2:24 is the foundation of the New Testament teaching in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, upon which Jesus elaborated, “consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh.”  Similar to the Hebrew phrase for one flesh, the Greek phrase sarx mia connotes the new relationship that is created through the marriage union, which signifies a unitary existence (Brown, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 678).

God’s intentions for marriage are embodied in the context of a covenantal relationship.  Hugenberger (1994) argued that four essential components comprise an understanding of covenant in the Old Testament:  “1) a relationship 2) with a non‑relative 3) which involves obligations and 4) is established through an oath” (p. 215).  In Genesis 2:24, the man and the woman became one flesh via sexual union.  Sexual union is an oath‑sign, similar to giving a handshake or eating together, which depicts the covenant commitment of one flesh.

God used the metaphor of marriage when He modeled in His covenantal commitment to mankind.  When God makes a covenant, He offers promises, assumes responsibilities, and identifies obligations to be fulfilled by His covenant partners (Eilts, 1995, pp. 444-445).  This ensures that the covenant is good for both God and His covenant partners.  In fact, “a common thread in all of God’s covenants is a promise of deliverance and well‑being, liberation from suffering, persecution, or oppression” (Eilts, 1995, p. 445).  In God’s covenantal relationship with Israel, He committed to be their God (Alexander & Baker, 2003, p. 154).  In exchange, Israel committed to keep Yahweh’s commandments (Deuteronomy 5-26).  These obligations expressed love and loyalty to God (Alexander, 1997; as cited in Alexander & Baker, 2003).  Love is more than mere feelings or sentiment, but is expressed in actions that reflect that love.  Similarly, God’s intentions for the marriage relationship are companionship and mutual help (Genesis 2:18), ongoing physical relationship that comprises one flesh relationship (Genesis 2:24), and mutual respect, love, and caring (Ephesians 5:21-33) (Brown, 1979, Vol. 3, p. 539).

Jesus admonished His hearers not to deviate from God’s design for marriage:  “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9).  In the context of marriage, the Greek word chorizo, translated as separate, has the connotation of dividing that which is indissoluble because the man and the woman become one living being (Brown, 1979, Vol. 2, p. 349).  This partnership cannot be dissolved without damaging its partners.  Yet, Jesus recognized the possibility for the marriage covenant to be broken and challenged His hearers to appraise their own lives to consider any action that might break apart that which God joined together (Brown, 1979, Vol. 3, pp. 539‑540).

Abuse and neglect break the marriage covenant.  The Lord described the man’s companion as his wife by covenant and warned him not to deal treacherously with her (Malachi 2:14-15).  The Hebrew wordbagad, translated as treacherously, denotes unfaithfulness to the covenant (Harris, Archer, & Waltke, 1980, p. 90).  Conversely, when the man is faithful to the covenant, he fulfills his obligations to his wife.  According to Luck (1987, pp. 31-37), the man’s obligations include provision for his wife’s physical needs, protection of her reputation, and protection from abuse.  Provision for physical needs includes food, clothing, and conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10).  Exodus 21 is traditionally not cited in connection with marriage because it refers to a slave or concubine with whom the master has a one fleshrelationship.  Luck (1987) argued a fortiori that although Scripture does not delineate similar rights for a full wife, it is reasonable to assume that God’s care for a lesser status one flesh partner would, at the very least, be applicable to a full wife (i.e., a free woman would not have fewer rights than a slave).  In Deuteronomy 22:10, the husband was fined for publicly defaming his wife.  This verse established the husband’s obligation not to ruin his wife’s reputation.  Exodus 21 established penalties for personal injuries.  For example, a master is not to strike a slave’s eye or knock out a slave’s tooth (Exodus 21:26).  Using the same a fortiori argument as above, Luck (1987) argued that a man must never beat his wife.  Furthermore, it does not make sense that God would care about the wife’s reputation and then care nothing about her body.  It is also persuasive to consider that if the penalty for striking parents was death (Exodus 21:15), it seems incongruous to consider that there would be absolutely no consequence for striking a wife.

Scripture condemns abuse and neglect in all of its forms.  The Bible vigorously condemns violence (Kroeger & Nason‑Clark, 2001, p. 77).  God abhors and denounces violent behavior, which is an evidence of sin that brings God’s judgment.  Because of violence, God destroyed the earth (Genesis 6:11-13).  The Lord’s soul hates “the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5).  Wickedness stirred up God’ anger (Ezekiel 7:3); in His pronouncement of punishment for wickedness, He declared that “violence has grown into a rod of wickedness” (Ezekiel 7:11).  Proverbs characterized the violent as wicked (Proverbs 4:14-17) and treacherous (the Hebrew word bagad, meaning unfaithful, as noted above) (Proverbs 13:2).

Abuse perverts the image of God (Tracy, 2005, pp. 27-35).  Instead of nurturing, sustaining, and enhancing a wife’s God‑given craving for love and affection, physical abuse distorts God’s image of responsible dominion in a most destructive way.  Neglecting to provide for a wife’s physical needs distorts God’s functional image to care for His creation.  Thus, a man who neglects to provide for the needs of his household is described as one who has “denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  Furthermore, verbal abuse distorts God’s image by failing to create life through words.  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).  “A soothing [healing] tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:14).  ”The Pentateuch holds the lives of men and women, slave and free, Israelite and foreigner, born and unborn, to be of utmost value.  Each is an image of God, to be respected, protected, and actively loved” (Alexander & Baker, 2003, p. 94).

God’s response to abuse is reflected in His strong statement in Malachi 2:16 that He hates “him who covers his garment with wrong.”  The Hebrew word chamac, translated as wrong in the NASB, is most often translated as violence (KJV; NIV; RSV) (Harris et al., 1980, p. 297).  However, the Old Testament usually connected chamac with sinful violence.  Hugenberger (1994, p. 75) presented the older view ofgarment as a biblical image of clothing to suggest an outward expression of man’s inner state.  For example, “pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them” (Psalm 73:6); “he clothed himself with cursing as with his garment” (Psalm 109:18); and, “on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor” (Jeremiah 2:34).  Thus, for a man to cover his garment with wrong includes both the action of violence and an abusive inner state, which violates the covenant of marriage.

When the marriage covenant is broken through abuse and neglect, the abused wife may be faced with the dilemma of whether Scripture supports her decision to leave the marriage.  Returning to the opening vignette, both Sarah and Mary entered into marriage with the expectation of a lifelong commitment and an understanding that biblical grounds for ending a marriage only include adultery, desertion by an unbelieving spouse, or death.  Is their only recourse for this abuse to pray that God would look down from heaven, see their affliction, and cause their husbands to leave or die?  Some New Testament texts appear to support Sarah and Mary’s understanding of marriage:  Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity or immorality, commits adultery (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9).  However, if an unbelieving spouse leaves, let him leave (1 Corinthians 7:15).  A married woman is bound to her husband while he is alive (Romans 7:2), and she “should not leave her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:10).

For women with strong faith, “the promise before God to stay together until death do us part” (Nason‑Clark, 2004, p. 304) creates greater vulnerability when they are abused.  These religious women sometimes feel that they are not allowed to leave because they believe that marriage is forever regardless how cruel their husbands may treat them, even if their lives are endangered (Kroeger & Nason‑Clark, 2001, p. 36).  In fact, religious victims have a higher level of commitment to remain in their marriages than non‑religious victims:

One study found that the average length of marriage for religious victims was 11.4 years compared to 8.6 years for non‑religious victims.  In the case of religious victims, the abuse had continued for an average of 9.4 years, whereas for non‑religious victims the figure was 7.4 years.  Religiosity of the victims bore no relationship to the severity of the abuse (Horton, Wilkins, & Wright; as cited in Roberts, 2008, p. 42).

In contrast to this religious commitment to an abusive marriage, Instone-Brewer (2003, p. 83) argued that not all marriages can be rescued, and Scripture does not provide a lifetime guarantee for all marriages.  This is evidenced by the wording in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9, “let no man separate,” which is contrasted with the common understanding of these verses, “no one can separate” (Instone‑Brewer, 2003, p. 84).  Even though the dissolution of a marriage is very undesirable, these texts imply that it can end.

Yet, some have argued that if Jesus considered neglect and abuse to be valid grounds for ending a marriage, He would have said something about them (Instone‑Brewer, 2003, pp. 95‑96). What can be concluded about Jesus’ silence on this matter?:

There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God:  these principles were unanimously agreed on.  Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time (Instone-Brewer, 2003, p. 96).

Furthermore, “the mission of the Incarnate One included freeing the oppressed” (Sider, 2005, p. 47).  In Luke 4:17‑21, Jesus informed His hearers that Isaiah’s prophetic words about “preach[ing] the Gospel to the poor…proclaim[ing] release to the captives…recover[ing] sight to the blind…set[ting] free those who are downtrodden” were fulfilled in Himself.  Sider (2005) argued that Isaiah’s words about releasing the captives and setting the downtrodden free unquestionably refer to physical captivity and oppression.  Jesus’ ministry corresponded to Isaiah’s prophecy, and He spent a great deal of time ministering to despised women, lepers, and other marginalized people.

What Jesus did condemn in the Matthew 19 discussion with the Pharisees was any cause divorce (divorce on trivial grounds) as an invalid and unbiblical way to end a marriage (Roberts, 2008, p. 86).  Roberts (2008, pp. 39-41) made the distinction between treacherous divorce and disciplinary divorce, arguing that it is only treacherous divorce that God hates.  Treacherous divorce occurs when a spouse divorces without biblical grounds (i.e., discarding a spouse for an insignificant or no reason).  Disciplinary divorce is a disciplinary tool that withdraws marriage privileges from a spouse who breaks the marriage covenant through adultery, abuse, abandonment, or harmful neglect.  Another name for disciplinary divorce is justified divorce.  However, many Christians may fear that by accepting the notion of a justified divorce, the floodgates of excuses to divorce will open.  Roberts (2008, p. 41) clarified that she does not intend to imply that Christians can separate as the result of light offenses or transitory incidents.

Even with repeated abuse and heavy offenses, the believer should make every effort to call the abuser to repent (Roberts, 2008, p. 41).  “Often the best hope for abusers to repent and change their ways is for them to experience painful consequences they cannot escape no matter how much they cajole, threaten, or manipulate” (Tracy, 2011, p. 6) (e.g., arrest, wife leaving, ostracism or separation from the church).  Without painful consequences, there is little motivation for the abuser to change.  On the other hand, painful consequences may lead an abuser to repentance.

God did not quickly divorce His covenant partners.  In fact, it was only after God’s repeated, faithful attempts to call faithless Israel to repent that He gave “her a writ of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8).  God modeled a compassionate invitation to repentance:  “Return, faithless Israel…I will not look upon you in anger. For I am gracious…I will not be angry forever.  Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God” (Jeremiah 3:12-13).  God followed His invitation with the blessings that He was willing to provide:  “Shepherds after [His] own heart, who will feed [them] on knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15) and “a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of the nations!” (Jeremiah 3:19).

Roberts (2008, p. 41) argued that it is important to understand that most abuse victims make many attempts to reconcile their relationships before seeking a pastor or professional’s help.  Often the victim has borne too much, too long, and the abuse pattern is deeply entrenched.  Unrepentant abusers have darkened understanding and hardened, callous hearts.  When this is the case, the believer is forced to accept that an unrepentant partner irreparably broke the marriage covenant (Wenham, Heth, & Keener, 2006, p. 112).

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about why Moses commanded to give a divorce certificate (Matthew 19:7) by correctly distinguishing that divorce was not commanded, but was permitted due to hardness of heart, even though it was not that way from the beginning (Keener, 1991, p. 42).  In essence, Jesus communicated that allowing divorce conceded to human weakness.  This principle interprets the law with compassion:  Jesus is making the point that Moses conceded to divorce because legal protection for someone divorced against will is the best that could come from hard‑hearted people.  If they were open to God’s ways and compassionate, He could have required them to keep his original, ideal standard of not initiating divorce.  It is consistent to assume that God would provide the same compassionate, legal protection for an abused wife.

Scripture confirms that God responds in compassion to the oppressed.  God is a rock, refuge, shield, horn of salvation, and savior who saved David from violence (2 Samuel 22:3).  God delivered David from his strong enemy and those who hated him and were too mighty for him and rescued him from the violent man (Psalm 18:17, 48).  Solomon declared that God crushes the oppressor, delivers the needy when they cry for help, and rescues their lives from oppression and violence (Psalm 72:4, 12-14).  God sets free those who are doomed to death (Psalm 102:20).  God executes justice for the oppressed and sets prisoners free (Psalm 146:7). God loosens the bonds of wickedness, undoes and breaks every yoke, and lets the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:6).

If God is so compassionate toward the oppressed, why does He hate divorce (Malachi 2:16)?  In other words, why would He hate the very thing that would liberate an abused woman from her oppressor?  “He knows from personal experience how much pain results from it” (Instone‑Brewer, 2003, p. 42).  God’s criticism is not against the legal process or a person who divorces; otherwise, He would have to criticize Himself for divorcing Israel.  God hates the treachery or faithlessness of breaking the marriage covenant.  However, it is important to distinguish that the person who breaks the marriage covenant is the abuser, not the wronged person who enacts a divorce.  Continued abuse or neglect can result in physical and emotional damage, and continued unfaithfulness destroys the credibility of the institution of marriage.  Even though divorce has terrible consequences for both partners, remaining married is often worse.

In their study of 15 divorced, formerly battered, women, Haj‑Yahia & Eldar‑Avidan (2001), examined the factors that contributed to a decision to divorce an abusive husband.  Intrapersonal factors included the personal strength and empowerment gained in coping with violence, efforts to preserve self-confidence despite the abuse, intensification of violence, and combating damage to children.  Interpersonal factors primarily focused on concern for children.  Structural‑organizational factors emphasized rights as women and divorcees, access to money, employment, and support from governmental agencies.  Factors that hindered their decision were past failed attempts to leave, fear of the spouse’s violent reaction, lack of support from the family of origin, and cultural stigma.  Underlying the many factors that helped them to implement the decision to divorce was the physical and emotional support they received from various sources.  This study underscores the complexity of the divorce decision and the need for the body of Christ to support abused women.

In the case where both spouses claim to be Christians, church discipline (Matthew 18) is an important part of the decision to divorce in the face of marital abuse (Roberts, 2008, pp. 48‑49).  This gives both parties a chance to present their sides of the story.  If the alleged abuser is unwilling to present his viewpoint, a decision is made on the available evidence.  Sadly, church discipline is not always used in a biblical way.  “Sometimes churches use the principle of discipline in a grace‑less way:  by breaching confidentiality, demonstrating fleshly bias, or viewing restoration of the marriage as more important than restoring individuals” (Roberts, 2008, p. 48).  Sometimes they accuse the wrong person or reject them because they have failed to investigate the matter sufficiently.  When Christian leaders have an underdeveloped theology of sin and its devastation, they are unable to offer needed help.  Conversely, when victims receive a fair hearing, with a just determination, it can provide peace of mind to move forward to rebuild their lives.  Unfortunately, church discipline rarely happens.  Furthermore, the church is often unaware of the abuse.

According to Tracy (2007), due to clergy mismanagement and misunderstanding of domestic violence, only a small percentage of women view clergy as helpful for abuse victims.  Abused women are often told by clergy that they should submit to abusive husbands, even when submission fails to stop abuse.  Instead of condemning abuse as sinful and unacceptable, clergy are often silent from the pulpit on this issue.  Even worse, clergy consistently underestimate the prevalence of domestic violence, especially in their congregations (e.g., according to Wirthlin Worldwide (1999), as cited by Tracy (2007), in Maricopa County, Arizona, 42% of 600 abused women surveyed attend religious services on a weekly basis).  Because clergy naïvely believe that an abusive man will change in response to a wife’s submission, they are often more concerned about preserving the marriage.  Sadly, some clergy even go so far as to partially blame women for the abuse.  To counteract these problems, clergy must educate themselves and their congregations on all aspects of abuse, especially qualities of abusive men.  Clergy need to recognize the importance of networking with other professional and community resources to address the needs of abuse victims.  Clergy must also work with other leaders to hold batterers responsible for their abuse.  Victims of abuse and their children must be protected and considered a priority.  By making these important changes, clergy have the opportunity to provide healing and help for domestic violence victims.

Alsdurf and Alsdurf (1989, pp. 127-128) challenged the church to accept its radical ministry of reconciliation in responding to abused women.  This challenges the church to awake from its passivity in failing to recognize abuse and intervene on behalf of victims.  It calls the body of Christ to nourish and struggle along with victims.  This achieves a balance of justice and love that is sorely missing in our world.  This radical ministry of reconciliation is not tidy or safe, but takes the risk to serve as a mediator.

Alsdurf and Alsdurf (1989, pp. 128-129) also challenged the church to fulfill its prophetic role by advocating for the oppressed.  This is not a feminist ministry, but one that aggressively responds to the existence of evil.  “If the church is to be truly pro‑life, how can it help but champion the cause of battered women?” (Alsdurf & Alsdurf, 1989, p. 128).  Being pro‑life goes beyond opposing abortion to taking a stand against everything that opposes life.  Similar to the outrage expressed by the Old Testament prophets, the church must become indignant over abuse within Christian marriages.  The church must take action to “deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11).

When the church steps forward to model God’s compassion to abused women, an urgent issue is the need for safety (Nason-Clark, 1997, pp. 119-121).  Safety includes the care of the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the abuse victim and her children.  Safety also includes a response setting that will not only meet the woman’s needs, but also provide safety for anyone who offers her assistance.  Emotional safety is created when the woman can talk without being judged or condemned.  One dilemma is that male clergy may have a difficult time providing a safe haven for a woman who was abused by a man.  This creates the need for women to be available for this ministry.  Specifically, clergy must offer practical assistance that includes a safety plan, safe housing, and assistance with financial needs (Tracy, 2011, p. 5).

The prevalence of abuse suggests that counselors may often have the privilege and challenge to work with abused clients to develop strategies to rebuild their lives. The first priority in counseling victims of abuse is to develop a safety plan.  When providing therapy for victims of abuse, counselors will address the toxic shame, powerlessness, deadness, isolation, brokenness, lack of intimacy, and unforgiveness that are among the devastating consequences of abuse (Tracy, 2005).  “Nothing can generate clouds of toxic shame like abuse” (Tracy, 2005, p. 76).  Because shame is a major component of abuse, it is imperative that Christian counselors have a biblical perspective of abuse within marriage.  Given the power differential in the counseling relationship, the counselor’s suggestion that an abused wife is disobeying God by leaving her husband will only add to the massive shame with which she already struggles.  Conversely, allowing the abused client to experience God’s compassion in the therapeutic relationship promotes healing of the abuse.

In conclusion, domestic violence is a prevalent and devastating reality that the body of Christ, in general, and Christian counselors, in particular, must address.  Scripture makes it clear that God’s original design for marriage was a permanent union between husband and wife.  Within the context of this covenantal relationship, a husband has the opportunity to lovingly provide for his wife’s physical needs, protect her reputation, and protect her from abuse.  When he fails to do that and instead neglects and abuses her, he breaks the marriage covenant.  Even though God hates divorce because of the pain it causes, He is compassionate toward victims of abuse and permits a certificate of divorce.  God’s compassion compels the body of Christ to also respond compassionately to the needs that are created as a consequence of abuse.  In doing so, broken victims of abuse are given the opportunity to heal and rebuild their lives.


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